Yabusame - the art of Japanese archery on horseback
I had gone to watch yabusame once before in Kamakura, but it was so crowded, and the area was so small that all I ended up seeing was a guy on a horse galloping by for about 5 seconds before disappearing behind the trees and people.
Watching it on the beach in Zushi was much better. The event started with a small taiko performance. There is nothing like the thundering rhythm of Japanese drums to get one in the mood for a display of martial arts. When the participants came out fully dressed in their samurai clothing, the soundtrack from "The Last Samurai" began playing in my head. It was awesome seeing a group of about 20 to 30 people all dressed in clothing from the Kamakura period proceed down the beach with their horses by their sides as the ocean waves could be heard crashing on the shore with picturesque mountains in the background and a fierce wind to welcome them. I could almost feel that I was really back in that time period about to witness a battle, except for the sights of windsurfers and yachts in the bay.
Many people probably consider the sword to be the primary weapon of the samurai, but it was actually the bow and arrow. Since archery skills were vitally important to the samurai, the Shogun of Kamakura was a little upset when he learned that his warriors, well, sucked at it. So began the Yabusame demonstrations in and around Kamakura hundreds of years ago. I feel lucky that I live so close to an area with so much culture.
If I remember correctly, the course for the archers was about 250 meters. Three targets were set up, and the archer had about 15 seconds total to load, aim, and fire his arrows at all three while at the same time steering a horse galloping down the beach. I was standing on the side of the course near the second target when I heard the sound of the horse's hooves pounding the sand like rolling thunder across the skies. As the archer approached the target, he raised up his bow and let out a yell... IN-YO....., which is akin to the meaning of yin and yang. The horse and its rider almost instantaneously disappeared as a loud cracking sound split the air. The arrow had hit its target.
Yabusame, like many martial traditions in Japan is not considered a sport, but rather as a means of personal development. One who practices yabusame works to improve concentration, discipline, clarity of the mind, physical fitness and to live with respect and honor.
The skies were clear that day; the wind was strong, and I was reminded once again of the spirit of the samurai.